The tradition of the service of Lessons and Carols comes from the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, where it was first observed on Christmas Eve, 1918. Since 1919 the service has begun with the hymn “Once in royal David’s city.” Most often this was introduced by a boy chorister, singing alone, unaccompanied. Custom has it that no one knows which boy will sing the famous opening verse, including that boy himself, until the conductor gives him the signal to begin.
The service was adapted from an Order drawn up by the Reverend E.W. Benson, later Archbishop of Canterbury, for use in the wooden shed that then served as his cathedral in Truro, at 10:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve 1880. Beginning in 1928 the service was broadcast by the BBC, and except in 1930, it has been heard annually. Sometime during the 1930s, overseas broadcasts were begun, resulting in millions of world-wide listeners each year.
Since its beginning the service has been adapted for use around the globe. One correspondent reported hearing the service in a tent on the foothills of Mt. Everest; another, in the desert. King’s College Dean Eric Milner-White, who instituted the services in Cambridge, points out, “The main theme is the development of the loving purposes of God. . .[seen] through the windows and words of the Bible.” Many of those who took part in the first service must have recalled loved ones killed in the Great War when it came to the famous passage “all those who rejoice with us but on another shore and in a greater light.”
This December 24 marks the ninety-ninth service at King’s College, Cambridge. In addition to those present for the service, and those listening to the broadcast, thousands more will celebrate with Lessons and Carols in local services, as we do in this parish. So it is that we at Holy Communion, in University City, in this year of our Lord two thousand and sixteen, join the throngs of pilgrims to the Manger, preparing for the coming of Messiah by means of this Service of Lessons and Carols. God with us. Emmanuel.